The Gods love to test. How else would they stay amused? Of course human beings are their favourite toys! And why not? We’re so entertaining in every state. So they ferret out a criterion to judge us by and observe how we respond. Bets are laid, speculations are made. But a gamble’s a gamble. Sometimes, they win. Sometimes, they learn.
Fellow gods and sages once asked Lord Vishnu, “Who is your favourite devotee?”
“Rantideva”, he said right away.
Indra wasn’t very convinced. “Of all beings, a human is your most darling devotee?”
The divine gathering chuckled. A tickled Vishnu reassured Indra, “Although we don’t always take them seriously, this man – Rantideva, is indeed my most ardent devotee.”
“Let us be the judge of that. We’ll test him”, insisted Indra. Everyone seemed agog with the idea.
“Have it as you will,” said Vishnu, sanguine and unruffled.
A prosperous, honourable and spiritual King, Rantideva, administered a flourishing empire and was adored by his people.
Of course that was square one for the Gods.
After unseasonal rains and winds came a famine. Agriculture hit a deadlock and the state was mired in misery.
Rantideva drained his treasury and granary to sustain his people. While it did support them initially, stocks soon depleted. The drought stayed. And the kingdom was back in a crunch. Hunger and thirst replaced the opulence Rantideva’s land was known for.
The ruler, however, remained unchanged in his pledge to his people and his duty towards them. Handing over his palace and all his riches to the masses, he had hoped to protect them from complete collapse. But our Gods had other plans.
Misfortune lingered and Rantideva could do nothing but pray. Tendering every last scrap of food to his subjects, the King meditated on his Lord, the preserver, Vishnu. In the hope that his devotion will protect and buttress his people.
He had fasted for 48 days straight, tirelessly reaching out to his Lord – a penance of sorts for better times ahead. When the King’s coterie could no longer behold the emaciated and bare sight of their leader, they convinced a resistant Rantideva to break his fast. Food and water were put before him.
Just as he was to start eating, he saw an old man tottering in the distance, towards him. The King ran to the feeble old chap to assist him. As he seated him down, he asked, “You look tired Sir. Can I do anything to help?”
Eyeing the King’s plate, the old one whimpered, “Oh noble one! I’m starved and unable to find anything to eat…” He needed to say no more. Rantideva gave him a portion of his food. It was swallowed in no time. “Your Highness, thank you for saving my life. I had begun to doubt if I’d ever find any food.” The Royal nodded with humility and the receiver rose and moseyed on to another destination.
The King’s Circle seemed irked. “Please eat whatever is left of your food, Sir!” one of them implored, before anyone else came asking for it – a thought echoing through them all. Their Chief however, was blissful; too happy to have helped anyone in need. He nodded and settled before his food.
Just as he was to start eating, a man in rags stepped in. Weary and drooping, he fell at the King’s feet. Rantideva couldn’t bear to see such fatigue and wretchedness. It was vile, he told himself, to not feed him; to let him perish. And so, he did.
Revived from entirely going to pieces, the teary-eyed man in tatters left, thanking his highness profusely. The same humble nod. The same bliss lingered on the King’s face. His courtiers looked wistfully at the meagre remains on their Lord’s plate. They feared he’d forgo that too.
Indeed, that’s what happened. A man came to him with his dogs. They wore the same wanting look he had seen on the faces of those he had only just encountered. To his mind, he owed animals the same duty he owed man. Hence, Rantideva gave every last bit of his food to a dog-hungry man and his fittingly hungry dogs. When they had polished off what was available, his visitors departed, grateful and resuscitated.
The water was still around. Just as he was to drink it, a man disparaged by most as an outcast appeared, begging, in every quarter, for water. His attendants might have shooed him away had the King not instantly extended an arm holding his tumbler out to him. Deemed an untouchable all his life, to accept alms from his King made him bashful. “Sir, I’m branded a pariah. It would not be publicly permissible for me to take this from Your Highness…” Rantideva let him say no more. He inched closer to the thirsty man, supported his flagging frame and made him drink the water. When he had quaffed it, the King spoke, “The same Lord that created me created you. We’re all the same. Neither above nor beneath the other. I see our Great Lord Vishnu in you. And he guides me to create a better world for those I am and feel responsible for. If you are disadvantaged, it is my calling to brace and raise you.”
Devotion, in a sense, is duty, isn’t it? It is love sustained by action. A pattern of the things we do for each other every day.
The King’s entourage learnt that day that hearts of gold exist; that your greatness is not what you have, it’s what you give; that devotion is the discovery that whom you worship lies in every living being, no matter how big or small, and you honour and show consideration for them like you would our Gods. It’s being there for one another.
All at once, a burst of thunder, a flare of lightning. Heaven had in fact gravitated to the Earth. The players appeared before Rantideva. Lord Vishnu stood amidst them, pleased and proud. Every alms seeker, every destitute drifter, every parched person that had come to the King’s doorstep that day was designedly a God in disguise. The devotee had triumphed at every stage of this diabolical test.
One couldn’t tell who was more bashful that day – the unfairly stigmatized outcast or the divine dramatists who’d hatched this script.
A jubilant Lord Vishnu spoke, “Rantideva, you display devotion like no other. Because you understand it like no other. Souls as kind as yours are precious. A purity that must be protected. My peers wished to test you and I assented. They snatched your perfect life – a thriving kingdom, healthy and hearty inhabitants, treasures of wealth, even your home. Just like that, you dispensed with your riches, for in times of adversity, they belong to all, collectively. When, at long last, you were persuaded into breaking your fast after the grave penance of abstaining from food for 48 days, they masqueraded as drained, deprived and nearly dead paupers. And you gave them all you had. Now that, right there, is devotion. It’s kindness. A simple way to tell another struggling soul that there is love and hope and generosity to be found in this world.”
Whom are we to revere more? Who was godlier? Our warm-hearted King or our gaming Gods?
Whatever the answer to that may be, Rantideva was inducted as a heavenly being by his Lord. A devotee to whom the world would now be devoted.
Abundance was re-established in his land. It blossomed. His people were full of life. And all discrimination, all unfairness made way for humanity, fondness, fellowship and grace – all that devotion has ever entailed.
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